WASHINGTON -- It may be my own quirky and subjective view, but it seems to me that Lance Armstrong's face has reflected more of his transformation over the last two decades than does his biography.
I could, of course, be remembering wrongly, since I have never met the man and am working only from photographs in newspapers. Or it may be that I am misjudging certain expressions of his. But his face has become hardened, toughened and even contorted as he has gone through years of barefaced "innocence." He is now rumored to be on the verge of a confession.
There was a time when you could find the outline of a smile on his face, and when sports, as sports, really meant something to him. Certainly he has not always had the unfeeling, stony look that now comes across in his pictures. Or, is this what cheating on your sport, and then cheating about your cheating, and then finally seeking forgiveness so you can compete again, do to you?
What a sad, sad story. Lance Armstrong -- he of the high cheekbones and the slim, trim body, the man who beat cancer to become a sports hero, but was finally stripped of seven Tour de France titles because of doping and barred for life from competing in Olympic sports -- wants another chance, his intimates told The New York Times last weekend.
Remember the 10 years and more when Armstrong repeatedly, passionately denied any guilt in his sports activities. Even while the world was falling around him and competitors were revealing their doping stories, he stood up at meeting after press conference after court hearing, denying everything with a face as set as those on Mount Rushmore.
He was not only destroying the faith of untold millions of adults and children, of Americans and Frenchmen, but he was also willfully poisoning his own charity foundation, Livestrong, which he founded after surviving testicular cancer and becoming one of the greatest heroes in modern sports.
Even last October, when officials of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency laid out hundreds of pages of eyewitness testimony from teammates, email correspondence, financial records and laboratory analysis -- and after it became clear that the scandal encompassed not just Armstrong alone, but a virtual organization with him at the center -- still he did not talk.
Now, according to the Times, he wants to be able to compete again, especially in triathlons and running events. But these sports are sanctioned by organizations that adhere to the World Anti-Doping Code, with the punishments that thus accrue. The Times wrote that, according to the code, an athlete mighty fully confess and give details about his colleagues and receive a reduced ban.
And then there are questions of perjury, which by all accounts he has committed many times if he is willing now to confess. He would need assurances from the Justice Department that he would not be prosecuted for those crimes, the Times wrote.
Allow me, please, a brief personal thought.
Since the Vietnam years, I have had the honor of being a friend of the great baseball player Ernie Banks. I was set upon the poor man for a week as he visited troops in Vietnam by my wonderful newspaper, the Chicago Daily News. Each evening, he would give me his thoughts of the day and I would put them into newspaper form.
Now there's a real sports hero. Tall and lanky and still boyishly attractive, Ernie took his role as morale booster very seriously. I have had the pleasure of seeing him occasionally in Chicago, my hometown. A kid wants a ball signed? You got it. A lady wants a picture signed? No problem.
I only wish I had seen Ernie electrify fans during a Cubs game when he hit the ball out of the park and took every base between North Clark Street and Sox Park. But it is also his generous and sweet temperament that has endeared him to fans near and wide and earned him the formal title of "Mr. Cub."
When you compare Ernie to Armstrong, you get a bad feeling in your gut. We live in such a utilitarian moral world, such a relativistic ethical society, that one fears the anti-doping agency might loose Armstrong on us again. This would be a mistake. More than talent, our country desperately needs honesty -- and that means occasional punishment.
Look at Armstrong's face today; look at its ugly lines. He never knew what "playing the game" really meant. He was playing a different game.